On a gray day at Pimlico under threatening skies, the only threat to Skip Away stood in a stall in Kentucky.
Carolyn Hine's gray champion toyed with four challengers yesterday in the $750,000 Pimlico Special before pulling away to win by 3 1/4 lengths. He led from the start. And when one horse challenged him on the final turn, jockey Jerry Bailey showed him the whip. Skip Away dropped his head and shot off like a Corvette.
"He's a great racehorse," said his trainer, Sonny Hine. "And I think he's going to go down in history as one. We're very fortunate to be hooked on a star."
The fans who crowded around the winner's circle, cheering and shouting "Skippy, Skippy," agreed. Skip Away is perhaps the most popular -- and perhaps the best -- thoroughbred racing in North America.
His lone challenger at the moment is Silver Charm, stabled with trainer Bob Baffert at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. When the two might meet was on everyone's mind after Skip Away's fifth straight dominant performance in a Grade I race.
"I'd think somebody would put on a race where the two of us can meet while we're both in good shape," Hine said. "But until that time, I guess I'll just keep saying where I'm going and hope he shows."
Asked whether he thinks Baffert is afraid to run Silver Charm against Skip Away, Hine said: "Someone wrote in the Racing Form, and I'm just quoting him. He said, 'Bob Baffert reminds him of Gen. McClellan, who fought during the Civil War. He loved his troops so much he didn't really want to put them in battle.' "
Joe DeFrancis was quick to chime in on the subject. He is majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.
After presenting the winner's trophy to the Hines and Bailey, De Francis said: "This is a year it'd be great to have slot machines. If we had that money we could put up a $2 million winner-take-all match race between Skip Away and Silver Charm. What kind of race would that be?"
Until the two great grays meet somewhere down the line, racing fans must content themselves with races like yesterday's.
Skip Away was 1-5 against four horses with hope but little chance. Heavy rains in previous days and an early-afternoon shower provided a wet track, rated "good," which translated into "great" for Skip Away.
Breaking from the No. 4 post, Bailey allowed Skip Away to run freely from the gate. He claimed the lead and settled off the rail, leading by two lengths around the turn, down the backstretch and into the far turn.
Then Wagon Limit, the Belmont-based horse trained by H. Allen Jerkens, challenged Skip Away midway through the turn. Bailey asked. Skip Away answered.
"I just shook my whip at him a little bit," Bailey said, "and he threw me in the back seat. He dropped down about two inches and took off. It kind of threw my balance off the way he accelerated."
The race then was for the spoils.
Precocity, the Bobby Barnett-trained winner of the Oaklawn Handicap, surged on the rail for second, while Hot Brush, trained at Pimlico by Richard W. Small, charged on the outside for third. Wagon Limit faded to fourth, and Draw, owned by Maryland's Stuart S. Janney III, showed his disdain of a wet track and finished last.
Skip Away's time for the 1 3/16-mile race was 1 minute, 54 1/5 seconds -- not among the fastest of the 33 Pimlico Specials but quick for the conditions. And Skip Away carried 128 pounds. No winner of the Special has carried that much weight since 1937 when War Admiral won the inaugural running. (The race was not run from 1959 to 1987.)
Carolyn Hine, who grew up in Highlandtown, said winning is always sweet. (Skip Away has earned $7.8 million). But winning in Baltimore, she said, is a bit sweeter.
"This is where the roots are," she said. "But my greatest pleasure, anywhere, is sharing my happiness with others. I love it. I hear how much pleasure people are getting out of him.
"He's become everybody's horse. People will call, and they'll say, 'We've got a lot to talk about. But first, how's our horse?' I think it's great. I love it. I truly love it."
Now it's on to the Massachusetts Handicap on May 30 at Suffolk Downs near Boston. As the Hines left the winner's circle for a post-race party, one fan hollered: "See you in Boston, Sonny! The tour rolls on!"
Pub Date: 5/10/98